Tips for Riding the Subway in New York City

If you’ve never visited New York City before, you might be feeling nervous about how to tackle NYC’s famous transit system, the subway. It might seem impossibly complicated, but we have a few tips to get you on the right track.

getting around new york by subway

Image: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York/Flickr

Subway NYC: Pre-plan your routes 

Before you come to the city, study the official MTA subway map for just a few minutes (the MTA, or Metropolitan Transit Authority, runs all subways, buses, and trains in the city). Find the place where you’re staying on the map, and be sure you know the nearest subway lines. You can plug in the route from your hotel to a venue using a service like Google Maps. Giving yourself a simple orientation like this could save you a huge headache once you’re rushing around the city unsure how to get where you’re going.

Subway NYC: Pick up or download a map

You can’t always count on your smartphone to direct you to the right subway stop. Physical maps and downloaded images of the MTA subway map won’t fail you when your cell service drops mid-route while you’re underground.

Subway NYC: Give yourself extra time 

Don’t always trust the approximate travel times cited by apps and maps. Unpredictable service disruptions are inevitable and fairly frequent, so your trip from Tribeca to the Empire State Building may take 45 minutes rather than the 30 you expected. It’s also good sense to allow more time in case you get turned around in this brand-new terrain. 

Subway NYC: Invest in an Unlimited MetroCard

Don’t just buy single ride tickets. Pay $1 for an actual MetroCard, and choose the Unlimited option if you’re planning on lots of subway rides during your trip. The 7-Day Unlimited is $32, which pays for itself if you take more than 13 rides within a week. If you’re staying the entirety of Pride Month, pay $121 for a 30-Day Unlimited MetroCard. Whether you’re using Pay-Per-Ride or Unlimited fares, you can refill your MetroCard at any of the MTA machines.

Subway NYC: Find maps on the subway

If you don’t have your map handy, you can find maps posted in most subway cars. You may have to travel to the other end of the car to find it, but it’s always a Godsend when you’re lost. Many subway stations also have maps posted near the ticket booths and on the platforms.

Subway NYC: Don’t head Uptown when you need Downtown

Make sure you don’t end up in Brooklyn while trying to get to the Met! Figure out if you’re going uptown or downtown, and walk down the corresponding stairs. Sometimes you have to enter the correct direction from street-level, meaning uptown and downtown entrances will be located across the street from one another (you may have to pay two fares if you enter the wrong one and have to switch over). Other times the signage inside the station will direct you to the correct platform, whether Uptown or Downtown. 

Subway NYC: Don’t get on the wrong train

This might be easier said than done! Keep an eye out to make sure you don’t get on an express train when you need a local. Also, some tracks are home to multiple lines, so check the outside of the car (so you don’t get on the E instead of the M, for example). And as mentioned, make sure you’re going the right direction: uptown or downtown. If you get turned around, just consult the maps inside the car. 

Subway NYC: Notice weekend disruptions

The MTA schedules subway maintenance on weekends so that subway delays don’t disrupt anyone’s weekday commute. That means the F train might run on the A line from late Friday night until early Monday morning, for example. These disruptions could also mean your train skips the station where you need to get off, or your desired train isn’t running at all. These changes will always be clearly posted on papers inside the station and announced inside the subway cars by the conductor. For weekly service updates, the MTA posts its Weekender here.

Subway NYC: Use the Free Wi-Fi

All subway stations have recently been equipped with free Wi-Fi. Don’t sap your data, and connect to “TransitWirelessWifi” when you’re underground and waiting on the subway platform. But don’t count on the Wi-Fi to keep you going while you’re traveling on the subway. It’s only available at the stations, not in between.

Subway NYC: Walk to the end of the platform

Or, walk to the area where people aren’t already crowded to avoid the most crowded cars on the subway.

new york subway

Image: David Joyce/Flickr

Subway NYC: You only have to pay once

Once you’re underground, you can transfer to other lines at the next station without any extra charge. No matter how many transfers you make, one ride is just $2.75. 

Subway NYC: Wait for others to get off

Conductors sometimes yell this directive at passengers, but we’ll tell you more gently. Wait for passengers to get off the subway before you step inside.  

Subway NYC: Pay attention at each stop

Train conductors typically announce each station where the train makes a stop. However, some train cars have abysmal PA systems or someone is playing reggae on loud from a portable speaker. Don’t count on hearing the station announcements, in other words, and look out the subway windows to verify the station. You don’t want to miss your stop!

Subway NYC: Beware of rush hour

If you’re waiting for the 6 train at 6pm at Grand Central, good luck. You may not board a 6 train for 20 minutes, as each train will be crowded with commuters heading home. It’s fairly common to watch as multiple trains pass you by until you wait for a less crowded one. Do yourself a favor, and wait until after the morning (8:30-9:30am) and evening (5-7pm) rush hours to travel by subway.

Subway NYC: Brace yourself

Subways lurch, shake, and shudder their way along the track, and the sudden starts and stops can topple even the most experienced subway rider. Keep one hand on the rails to avoid falling. If you dare to take your hand away, remember to stand parallel to the walls of the subway car to maintain balance, and keep your knees soft. As one fellow rider once told us, “It’s like surfing!”

Subway NYC: Show courtesy

It’s the Golden Rule: treat others the way you’d like to be treated. While on the subway, offer elderly, disabled, and pregnant people your seat, and make space for others around you whether you're standing or seated. Don’t spread your bags over the bench, turn your music on loud, or get rowdy with your group. A little camaraderie is part of subway culture, but a full-on party is not.

Subway NYC: Ask for help!

Yes, there are tools around the subway station to assist travelers, but there’s no better assistance than directions from a seasoned New Yorker. Look for a kind face, and ask politely for help getting to your destination. New York gets a bad rap for rude residents, but we’ve found plenty of helpful folks throughout the subway system in the city. Besides, the best part of visiting a new place is chatting with locals!

For some fast facts on the MTA subway system, including fares and trivia, click here.

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